Freshman QB Jayden Daniels, who was recruited by Utah, is doing big things for Arizona State
Sun Devils present a variety of challenges for the Utes this Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium
SALT LAKE CITY — There are knowns and unknowns when 13th-ranked Utah hosts 17th-ranked Arizona State on Saturday.
For starters, the Utes have had trouble with the Sun Devils over the years. They’re just 2-6 in the pairing since the Pac-12 South was formed in 2011 and have been outscored 68-30 during losses the past two seasons.
“They are a good football team. They’re 5-1 and just find a way to win every week. There’s no real glaring statistical number that is just off the charts. They are just doing what they need to do to win week in and week out.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, on Arizona State
“It has been a rough series for us, but as I said this is a different year and different matchups,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Every year is its own complete entity — a separate entity — and I don’t think anything in the past will play into this game. We just haven’t fared very well.”
This time around, Utah and ASU are both ranked and sport 5-1 overall records and 2-1 marks in Pac-12 play. However, Whittingham insists such things haven’t altered their mindset or approach because every conference game is important.
“We use our same process and our same practice structure we do all season long,” he said.
This game, though, may carry extra weight when it comes to winning the Pac-12 South. The two teams are tied for first with Arizona and USC with six games to go. Tiebreakers could come into play.
“We will have our hands full to say the least. (Kyle Whittingham) has done a marvelous job. He has been there a long time. He has created a program a lot like his image,” said Arizona State coach Herm Edwards. “It’s very tough to play a team like this. So we need to be prepared to put our shoulder pads on and tie them up tight because it is going to be that type of football game.”
Running the ball could be tough for both teams. Utah leads the Pac-12 in rushing defense (52.8 yards) and Arizona State is second (91.7 yards). Scoring defense is another area of common success. The Utes give up only 13.2 points per game. The Sun Devils allow just 17.7.
Those are known aspects. So, too, is leadership and productivity at quarterback. Utah has a veteran in senior Tyler Huntley and Arizona State counters with a true freshman in Jayden Daniels.
The latter, though, is no mystery to the Utes. They know all about him.
“We know his skill set very well,” Whittingham said. “We recruited him really hard out of high school. He’s a talented kid. He’s not the biggest guy, only about 180 pounds, so he hasn’t filled out yet, but he’s doing a really nice job running the offense. He is making good decisions. They are taking care of the football and haven’t turned it over excessively.”
The Sun Devils have cashed in. Daniels, who is from San Bernardino, California, has passed for 1,610 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. He has completed 111 of 176 passes (63.1 percent).
Accolades are accumulating. Recent honors include being named player of the week from the Maxwell Award as well as Pac-12 recognition from the conference and Rose Bowl. Daniels threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-34 win over Washington State, leading the Sun Devils to a game-winning score with 34 seconds left to play — capping things off with a 17-yard touchdown run.
“Every game is a new experience, new team, and new environment for him. I do not get into all of the numbers. I am glad he is on our team,” Edwards noted. “As he continues to grow, he has a chance to be a very good player. I have said that this year. I said that you will watch young players grow up on the grass. Every week, you will watch them grow up. I think Jayden has captured a lot of people’s imagination because of how he has played in big moments. Kudos to him, but there is still a lot to be done.”
Daniels has led Arizona State to victories over Kent State (30-7), Sacramento State (19-7), 18th-ranked Michigan State (10-7), 15th-ranked California (24-17) and then Washington State. The lone setback was a 34-31 decision to Colorado.
“They are a good football team. They’re 5-1 and just find a way to win every week,” Whittingham said. “There’s no real glaring statistical number that is just off the charts. They are just doing what they need to do to win week in and week out.”
On offense, Daniels directs an attack that includes another Utah recruiting target — junior running back Eno Benjamin — and senior receiver Brandon Aiyuk. Benjamin has rushed for 529 yards and seven touchdowns, while Aiyuk has 31 catches for 651 yards and five scores.
“Having a dynamic quarterback like that just makes us prepare a little bit more,” said Utah safety Julian Blackmon. “It makes it a little bit tougher just knowing that we have to focus on the quarterback as well as a really good running back.”
Defensively, the Sun Devils are led by junior Evan Fields. The defensive back has a team-high 42 tackles. Four others — linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler, safety Cam Phillips and defensive lineman Jermayne Lole — have 29 or more stops.
On special teams, Aiyuk is a premier return specialist and sophomore punter Michael Turk is averaging 46.5 yards per kick.
Utes on the air
No. 17 Arizona State (5-1, 2-1) at No. 13/14 Utah (5-1, 2-1)
Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700AM